In the pantheon of code-hoppers, Brad Thorn sits alone on a perch with Sonny Bill Williams lurking somewhere close by. These two, along with Israel Folau are the men who have made code-hopping what it now is and without them we wouldn't have players moving between rugby and rugby league with the ease that they now do.
2015 has seen Glen Fisi'ahii and Ngani Laumape leave rugby league to try their hand in rugby. They join young men like Dylan Collier (Waikato) and Ngataua Hukatai (Counties) who left the Warriors to head back to rugby while Viliami Lolohea has been impressive this season with Tasman after featuring for the Junior Warriors. Lolohea was signed by the Canterbury Crusaders and is cutting his teeth in the ITM Cup like Fisi'ahii will do with Counties after signing with the Waikato Chiefs and Laumape will do with Manawatu after signing with the Wellington Hurricanes.
On the surface, this is a good example of the current code-hopping landscape with the National Youth Competition aka Holden Cup aka Under-20s competition putting young athletes in the shop window for anyone who wants to take a look. But dig a little deep and you'll see that Fisi'ahii (Wesley College), Collier, Hukatai (both Kings College) and Laumape (Palmerston North Boys) all enjoyed success in rugby. They were snapped up by the Warriors in a rather blatant purge of Aotearoa's schoolboy rugby stocks and will now/already have hop back into rugby.
That in itself is pretty funny and I made note of it at the time when Fisi'ahii and Laumape announced their moves back to rugby. You could say that one of the dangers of rummaging through schoolboy rugby, which has an extraordinary profile in Aotearoa is the ease at which these players might jump back to what they know - rugby.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck played in the same national schoolboys rugby team as Laumape and hopped between codes in high school with ease. Konrad Hurrell joined the Warriors after featuring in Auckland Grammar's 1st XV and it's the same story for Albert Vete who broke the mould of backs hopping between codes and made the move from a big no.8 in rugby to an NRL prop.
Throw in North Harbour's Matt McGahan who spent time at the Melbourne Storm's Under-20s team after featuring in the Mount Albert Grammar 1st 15 ... the same team Storm team that Matt Duffie played for. Duffie who was snapped up from Saint Kentigern's 1st 15 by the Storm and will now return to Auckland and play for the Auckland Blues.
This is the new breed of athletes who don't have too many issue in adjusting to the differences between rugby and rugby league. We can't put this solely down to the players though as the different clubs involved have also shown a greater willingness to snap up players from the other code and allow them to develop. The Warriors don't have a perfect record here in converting rugby players to NRL players, but they overall they have done a great job in allowing players like Vete time to develop as a rugby league player. That's especially the case when you consider that it must surely be pretty easy for backs to switch codes, but the duties of a forward in each code are much more different.
Lolohea was picked up by the Crusaders who dubbed him a 'project' safe in the knowledge that it would take him time to adjust. The Hurricanes must surely be aware of what Laumape can do and the same can be said about the Chiefs and Blues who wouldn't have signed Fisi'ahii and Duffie had their been question marks on their ability to jump back to rugby. It has become increasingly clear that Super Rugby and NRL clubs aren't so worried about the players' ability to switch codes and it's a pretty smart decision given that these young athletes have shown how effectively it can be done.
While Thorn and Williams led the way, I have a sneaking suspicion that we are moving into an era of unprecedented code-hopping. I have discussed a few local players but haven't touched on the number of NRL clubs who are signing Aotearoa's best rugby players to move across the ditch or the code-hopping within Australia. While in the past code-hoppers have drawn headlines mainly for daring to step outside the box, it's something that youngsters these days don't blink at doing. What will be interesting, especially next year will be the impact the likes of Duffie, Laumape, Fisi'ahii, Lolohea and the rest of the young code-hoppers have with their respective rugby teams.
Ponder whether you think this is a good thing or not. I love it because I just want to see the best athletes make it and if I wanna get all cute - I want to see young men achieve their dreams of being a professional athlete. The code-hopping situation only increases number of options for players which I can only really view as a good thing.